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Ja Rule and Billy McFarland in still from Netflix Fyre documentary. Netflix

Fyre festival fiasco: exploitation of Caribbean islanders highlights colonial legacy of tourism

Luxury, consumption, hedonism and sexual conquest are all tropes that have been long associated with travel to the Caribbean. The 2017 luxury music event Fyre Festival, masterminded by rapper Ja Rule and entrepreneur Billy McFarland, repackaged these tropes for a millennial market. But thanks to drastically insufficient planning, the fantasy turned into a nightmare, as would-be attendees were stranded in Grand Exuma without sufficient water, food or shelter.

Now, competing documentaries on Hulu and Netflix have recounted these events through the lens of millennial consumer culture, media coverage, greedy “entrepreneurship” and fraud.

But another story is humming in the background. Many Caribbean islands including Exuma rely principally (and often precariously) on tourism. Their status as hedonistic playgrounds often conceals exploitative power dynamics. In focussing on the stresses and losses of the festival’s stakeholders and attendees, the documentaries ultimately fail to interrogate the colonial baggage that they conspicuously depict.

The Fyre festival chaos

The documentaries highlight the increasingly erratic planning of the festival and its lurching cash flow.

As attendees arrived and confronted the lack of basic infrastructure and information, they began to post images online of flooded disaster tents and the festival’s “catering” – not meals prepared by celebrity chefs as had been promised, but processed cheese and bread. Scheduled headline acts withdrew before the event had even started. As night fell, stranded festival-goers in the documentary footage described the scenes as “barbaric”.

Fyre catering. @trev4president on Twitter

To say that the festival failed to materialise on its sales pitch would be a gross understatement. As both documentaries show, social media first marketed Fyre through expensively shot video footage of influencers and models running in slow motion through crystal waters. Drone shots showed yachts powering towards the idyllic Bahamian coastline. A coordinated network of hundreds of social media influencers posted teasers, intensifying Fyre’s “hype”.

The goal was to sell, according to McFarland, “a pipe dream to the average loser”. Tickets (some priced at US$12,000 for VIP packages) sold out rapidly.

Paradise islands

The Caribbean has long been imagined as a place of luxury and consumption – a place to escape the strictures of life at home, and “go native”, or become “tropicalised” through sensory excesses. For instance, in the early 20th century, Cuba was one of the illicit, close-but-foreign playgrounds that North Americans tourists could visit to gamble, drink and seek prostitutes. It is not surprising then that Fyre’s marketing exploited the vice heritage of its island location (which, it was claimed, once belonged to Pablo Escobar). As McFarland bragged: “We are taking the dream of the average American, and saying: for three days you can become Pablo Escobar”.

A promotional video for Fyre festival. YouTube

The festival location originally promised in Fyre’s marketing strategy was a “remote and private island” inviting “a quest to cross boundaries”. The narrative of discovery, conquest and “possession” of “virgin” territories positions the tourist as sexual conquistador, as anthropologist Colleen Ballerino Cohen has observed. As important studies have argued, the tourism market recolonises the Caribbean – both figuratively and literally. The construction of paradise islands cannot be separated from the colonising gaze.

Paradise lost

Caribbean nation-states are predominantly and often perilously reliant on extractive, mono-culture economies such as tourism – and these are a legacy of colonisation. Capital may be concentrated offshore, benefiting foreign operators, but contributing little to the local economy. The dominance of all-inclusive resorts, for example, where guests part with their cash in their home countries, limits participation by local businesses. McFarland’s team likewise encouraged their guests to buy credit-loaded wristbands to pay for drinks, food and experiences.

While the documentaries featured plenty of Fyre’s video marketing, showing white bodies partying in slow motion, black bodies were glimpsed intermittently, toiling in the background. Netflix’s film certainly does more to acknowledge this reality, recounting how 200 local contractors were brought in urgently to work day and night to prepare the site. These contractors were reportedly not paid.

A screengrab from the Netflix film Fyre. Netflix

In fact, local restaurant owner Maryann Rolle, whose venue frantically catered for employees and attendees, not only lost earnings but spent US$50,000 (£38,000) of her life savings in covering her costs.

The Fyre fiasco and the documentaries that have followed it expose the cruel reality of a global capitalist system where material resources and labour have been (often violently) extracted from “peripheral” countries by “core” countries.

The documentaries’ respective agendas are ambivalent – Hulu interviewed McFarland for its documentary while Netflix’s film is produced by FuckJerry/Jerry Media which also marketed the festival.

But motivation aside, both films failed to fully interrogate the effects on local people of this disaster – so audiences have instead turned to the internet to express their solidarity with local workers and to crowdfund Rolle. At the time of writing, $161,000 had been raised.

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